September 26, 2016

Housing, science building issues discussed at second public zoning hearing

After a four and a half hour public hearing on the city’s proposed educational zoning, Mayor Gerry Welch called on Webster University to clear up some questions about the ordinance.

“I think there is one question that is quite the crux of this, and I’m going to throw this over to Webster University… what is it that you want to do on the Eden (Theological Seminary) campus?” Welch asked.

University President Elizabeth Stroble took to the podium to field the council’s questions. She said the university may be interested in using Eden Theological Seminary’s empty housing if Eden President David Greenhaw were open to leasing the properties.

“If we could use available housing, it would certainly let off some steam (excess housing students) while we finish projects on campus,” Stroble said.

On Sept. 18 the city council held a second, public hearing for Ordinance 8851. The ordinance, which could affect the university’s campus plans, was argued by five organizations: the university’s student government association, alumna organization and residential housing advisors, Webster for Webster and residents for Webster Groves.  The hearing itself was designed to give the city council new information to help shape the zoning changes.

The proposed educational zoning has been an ongoing concern for both the university and Eden. University administration worries changes to educational zoning will make master plan aspirations unlikely. At the Sept. 2 public hearing, Stroble described the parking and green space requirements as excessive. She said meeting the requirements would make constructing any new buildings on campus, including the Interdisciplinary Science Building,unable to attain.

The university was also made aware the city was ready to start the CUP process for the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, but was waiting for documents from the university. City Attorney Helmutt Starr went on to clarify that any projects started before the hypothetical passing of Ordinance 8851 would adhere to the old zoning codes. He said those projects would also be accounted for in deciding requirements for green space and parking.

In the past, the university and Eden had requested the city table Ordinance 8851 and find a compromise. Welch said the public hearing is the only way to shape the document with input from all sides, legally. At the beginning of the hearing, Councilmember Anne Tolan explained meeting outside of a scheduled council meeting would be illegal.

Webster Groves Resident Molly Barrett said the ordinance was the best way to protect Webster from losing more neighborhoods to the university. She said with the abundance of campuses the university owns outside of Webster Groves, there should not be a need for more land in the city limits.

“The Garden Avenue neighborhood has been replaced with a parking garage and classroom buildings. That neighborhood is completely gone. Its homes and family history are gone forever,” Barrett said. “How much more land does Webster University need? How many homes, home sites, green space and retail does our city need to lose due to university expansion?”

Members of the University Resident Housing Advisory (RHA) argued against the ordinance at the meeting, citing the housing need for underclassmen. Residential Advisor Ethan Stohs said in the past the university has struggled to house all students who wished to live on campus. He added that Schultze Hhall would be a productive option for housing arrangements between Eden and the university.

Throughout the evening Councilmember Greg Mueller was the target of several speaker’s quips towards the council. Mueller, who has voiced his concern over the university’s practices, sat silent for most of the evening. However, he did interrupt the university’s SGA presentation by asking for information and not opinion from the group, as well as questioning the credibility of university alumnus presenter Tyler Holman’s research.

Speakers and groups were asked only to provide new information that would help in shaping the ordinance. Some speakers in favor of the proposed educational zoning said Webster students were diverting the discussion with arguments about their love for the city.

The city council voted to extend the public hearing in a continued effort to shape the ordinance. The next meeting of the city council and public hearing will take place on Oct. 7.

Welch said she was happy with the hearing because of the new information brought forward by speakers. She said the two major clarifications on the science building and the university’s intention with the Eden properties were also positive moments.

“People are very passionate about their neighborhood and [others are] passionate about the university, so sometimes when that happens its harder to focus on a compromise,” Welch said.

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